Thomas Laqueur has a thoughtful and thought-provoking LRB review of Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq, by John Dower; while the substance of the review is not LH-related, this paragraph prompts me to ask the assembled multitudes about something that’s bothered me for a long time:

While Dower’s instances of these failures are historically specific, the failures themselves are not. One could map much of what he rails against onto the ‘idols of the human mind’ that Francis Bacon identified in The Advancement of Learning, his great call for a new inductively and empirically grounded way of thinking. Bacon’s ‘idols of the tribe’ – the ‘false mirror’ of human understanding – distort the world just as what Dower sees as false history distorts the politics of our day; the ‘idols of the cave’ (doctrines and ideas based on personal prejudice and experience) are not unlike Dower’s ‘faith-based’ policies; the ‘idols of the market’ (errors we fall into as our minds make unwarranted connections between words and ideas) include the way we treat Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, Hiroshima; and the ‘idols of the theatre’ (prejudices that stem from religious and philosophical systems) are what we would call ideology, racism and, still, religion. The cultures of war addressed by Dower may be contemporary, but they display long-recognised kinds of muddled thinking.

Now, I must have first encountered the phrase “idols of the tribe” when I was in high school, and I’ve seen it and his other categories used frequently in the many years since. (You can get a different summary of them at Wikipedia.) Yet I’ve never come close to assimilating them; there’s something about the phrases “idols of the X” that makes my mind go as blank as when I try to read Derrida. What I want to know is whether this is a personal peculiarity or a general problem (which would presumably imply that our habits of thinking and categorizing have changed to some extent since Bacon’s day). So: when you read “idols of the tribe” do you automatically translate that to “humans’ tendency to perceive more order and regularity in systems than truly exists,” or do you think (as I do) “Oh lord, it’s one of those Baconian categories I can never keep straight, guess I’d better look it up yet again”?
Also, hearty congratulations to wood s lot and its creator Mark Woods, who’s been sharing great links for eleven years now (and lately his excellent photography as well). Keep up the good work!


  1. I think “Oh Lord, it’s one of those Baconian categories”; it is a great service to illuminate the essential character of an intellectual error, but these categories don’t do that. I make a half-exception for “idols of the marketplace,” which when applied strictly gets at what I would call fundamental error — I mean in the way that Joyce used the phrase when he rescued it from the Oh Lord heap (in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and again, obscurely, in Ulysses). But obviously that is a different application than what Laqueur wants to make with Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, Hiroshima. You’re not alone.

  2. I third the motion: the classification itself is fine, but whatever metaphor Bacon is making, it is too porcine for me. See also Write Badly Well: “Coin baffling aphorisms”: there’s no leaf falls as fast as Princess Mulch, and none so riverish as Spanish Dan.

  3. Trond Engen says

    I immediately read idols of the tribe as a better term for what I’ve been calling National Mythology, the elevation of irrational, often counter-productive policies to principles beyond reach for rational discourse by invoking mystical national virtues.

  4. For me it was love at first sight with Bacon’s idols. It’s a while since I last looked at them, and I too feel that I have to jog my memory and re-check the details. I remember including them in some teaching years ago, and that the topic was well received. Don’t press me for any searching analysis now! I suspect they shaped my current thinking about human cognitive limitations; but I could be mistaken about that.
    The Wikipedia summary LH links is pretty poor(sign). The articles linked from there are much better (at least slapping choice cuts of Bacon on the table; urk – how words in the marketplace subvert the sublime, yet we must pursue vagrant images to purge ourselves of them); and you can see how and why they have been inaccurately epitomised at that first article.

  5. I immediately read idols of the tribe as a better term for what I’ve been calling National Mythology
    Yes, tribes (at least in our today’s understanding) are associated with the petty jostling ethnicities … and not with the Mankind at large to which Bacon’s Latin term originally referred.
    Interestingly, good metaphors in general may have to be condemned under Bacon’s idol-bashing.
    Indeed, good metaphors appeal to our well-documented “familiarity bias”, which makes us more likely to believe any statements using familiar details, settings, and associations. So a great, culturally appropriate metaphor is but an example of Bacon’s “idols of the cave”. Maybe that’s why he chose his metaphors to sound so … lame?

  6. I am ashamed to admit that this is my first encounter with Bacon’s terminology.
    To me, the problem is with the way in which meanings have changed over time.
    Idols = ‘false images’, a term from Christianity — the modern positive use of ‘idol’ seems to get in the way.
    The tribe = meaning possibly distorted by the rampant spread of nationalism.
    The marketplace = meaning now fully distorted by modern economic theory.
    Peel away some of the modern accretions of meaning, and it makes a bit more sense.
    The Wikipedia sentence ‘This is due to confusions in the use of language and taking some words in science to have a different meaning than their common usage’ doesn’t make sense to me at all. Is this something like insisting that the tomato is a fruit when common usage is to class it as a vegetable? Or is it referring to something else again?

  7. More extreme than that. Like thinking that planetary orbits or the element of fire are actual things. Or why a robust definition of humid doesn’t apply to flames or dust.

  8. “a robust definition of humid doesn’t apply to flames or dust”: you’ve got me stumped there. Does it apply to ketchup?

  9. I agree with the post, and I have a similar problem with “opiate of the masses”. Every time I hear or read it, my brain thinks “hey, that sounds like something fun!” for a split-second.
    Maybe there’s something inherently confusing about the form “____ of the ____”, where neither of the words is clearly something to be execrated, but the combination is. Or maybe it’s because of the similarity to positive phrases like “cream of the crop” “top of the line” etc.

  10. Well, Hat, I take it you are happier identifying The Gods of the Copybook Headings?

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    AG, I think bathrobe may be right and part of the problem is that “idol” was more unambiguously pejorative in Bacon’s time. I guess “idolatrous” is still pretty unambiguously pejorative?

  12. The feeling that the words “idol”, “marketplace”, “tribe” for Bacon’s concepts are somehow weird and inappropriate is due to a linguistic prejudice – that idolum, for instance, means essentially what the cognate English “idol” means today to English speakers. This cognate-prejudice in one’s native language is an instance of idolum fori.
    Bacon published primarily in Latin, I think. His English-speaking commentators usually cling to the cognate English word “idol” for idolum, as in the “idol of the marketplace” that we are confronted with in this case: namely the tendency to use linguistic cognates to understand words in foreign languages (here Latin – another example is rendering religio as “religion”).
    German writers on Bacon are freer to render what Bacon means by “idols” or idola in light of his philosophical and Christian tradition, using the words Götzen/Abgötter (false gods), Trugbilder (illusions) or Vorurteile (prejudices). There is a German word Idol, but it is not as current as Götze and does not slyly suggest itself as a suitable translation of idolum by virtue of being a cognate.
    The German WiPe article on Idol gives a succinct explanation: “Idol (calqued in the 18C on the Latin idolum “image of a god”, derived from the Greek eídolon “form”, “image”, “graven image”)”. It refers to Bacon’s “idols”.
    As so often in matters of philosophy, I find that the German Wipe, in this case on Francis Bacon, contains a greater amount of explanatory and contextual information than the English WiPe. Below I have translated a passage from the linked article, beginning at Dazu müssten wir uns vor allem verschiedener Vorurteile entledigen. I have added in brackets certain key German words to help the English-speaking reader follow the didactic transition in the article from the furrin-sounding, non-German Idole to the down-home German Trugbilder (phantasms), Täuschungen (illusions):

    The most important task towards this goal [submission to Nature as our guide] is to rid ourselves of various unexamined, fixed ideas [Vorurteile]. Drawing on Plato, Bacon calls them idols [Idole], saying that they cloud our minds and can even distort them into self-deception.
    Bacon’s system of idols [Idole] is modelled on Cicero’s typology and the idea there that we humans wear one of four “masks” (behavior patterns) in dealing with each other. He says that prejudices are acquired or innate, the innate prejudices being characteristic of our intellectual faculty itself. Bacon divides such idols [Idole] into four groups with which investigators of nature [Forscher] must deal:
    1. Idola specus (phantasms [Trugbilder] of the cave) are what he calls those illusions which arise in the obscure depths of the individual. This is his way of characterizing the unconscious part of our actions and ways of thinking (one person, for instance, will stress similarities where another person sees differences). His opinion is that since such errors are so confused and of so many different kinds, they are not amenable to systematic description.
    2. Idola theatri (phantasms of familiar stories from the theater, of tradition). Errors [Irrtümer] resulting from traditional claims presented in a convincing way: “dogmas” or statements made by some authoritative person or institution that we believe “without question”. According to Bacon, such errors are present not only in the uncritical attitude that medieval schoolmen maintained towards “authorities”. He also criticizes in this connection those humanists who, although of a sceptical tendency, draw a dogmatic distinction between the humanities and the natural sciences, disparaging the latter.
    3. Idola fori (phantasms of the speaker’s platform, of the market) He says these are errors due to the way we use language. These idolae [idolae] arise from the habit of letting words stand for things. They amount to confusing conventional symbols for things with the things themselves, the market price with the real price. Here Bacon is taking aim at the nominalists. …
    4. Idola tribus (phantasms of the biological family) These are mistakes that our practical reason [Verstand] makes – the hardest ones to recognize and avoid. Bacon says that members of the human species naturally tend to see things from a human point of view, and judge them accordingly. Natural things thus lose their specific character and are affected by the cognitive and emotional dispositions of the investigator. As an example of this, Bacon gives the human tendency to overestimate the significance of sudden or unusual phenomena.

    For me the great advantage of German is that it helps me avoid a certain kind of idola fori, namely falling prey to English cognates from Latin. All of my bilingual dictionaries are X-German ones, where X is Spanish, French, Italian … I don’t own an X-English dictionary of any kind. That keeps me on my feet.

  13. Perhaps Mr. Hat would be so kind as to correct the “3” in “3. Idola tribus” to “4”.

  14. Opium wasn’t thought of as so dangerous in Marx’s day: a more modern translation (still a bit dated) would be “Religion is the Vαlium of the masses.”

  15. I think maybe the closest thing in Bacon’s English language works is the “false appearances” of The Advancement of Learning (whose Wikipedia page seems to have been coopted by creationists aiming to recruit Darwin).

  16. “Religion is the Vαlium of the masses”
    The way I learned it, taking “opiates” was fashionable in Europe for a while in the 19C among artists, writers and intellectuals who imagined that it was a way to tranquilize their tortured souls = creative energies. The point of “religion is the opiate of the masses” is to present religion as a cheaper, more easily available alternative for the unfashionable to dumb themselves down with.
    So nowadays I suppose it would have to be “religion is the cocaine of the masses” – not Vαlium, which is obtainable everywhere.

  17. Nah, the masses take cocaine too.

  18. Excellent contribution, Stu. Don’t know about this: “These idolae [idolae] arise from …”. Is the form idolae found in German Wikipedia? Tsk!
    I certainly agree about Bacon writing in Latin, and was toying with posting a comment about that myself. The case of marketplace interested me first, since the word imports something emporially commercial rather than keeping a focus on the commerce of ideas through language.
    You can get in medias res here, through the miracle of Googlebooks. The whole is downloadable, and the commentary in that edition looks handy. I’ll glance through it myself when I find the time.

  19. How useful to acquire a Latin edition, Noetica – I’ve downloaded it. I already had various English editions of his works, courtesy of a city near you.
    I was struck by the reference to Cicero and a typology of “masks” (hadn’t heard of it before) which the WiPe glosses as “behavior patterns” [Verhaltensweisen]. The more I read, the more fascinating stuff I encounter, even though I’ve been a bookman all my life. Why is it that so many people turn blasé instead ?
    At an earlier age, I would have been peeing in my pants from excitement. I suppose this means I am well prepared for a smooth transition into dotage.

  20. Noetica: The case of marketplace interested me first, since the word imports something emporially commercial rather than keeping a focus on the commerce of ideas through language.
    Don’t you think that “confusing the market price with the real price”, as the article puts it, justifies the notion of marketplace ? In a forum people haggle over prices and topics.
    I believe economics theory has no use now for the notion of “real price”. Still, there is something to be said for regarding the Latin word idolum, used by Bacon, as a word which has its own significance and merits in Latin. These are not adequately appreciated by an offer of the English word “idol” in exchange.

  21. For greater clarity, I should just now have written: “justifies the notion of marketplace even for trading in ideas”.

  22. Glad you italicised forum, which is another candidate for being described as “cognate-prejudice”.

  23. Yeah, I looked it up in Lewis and Short for reassurance. As people here will know, my effective knowledge of Latin is such that to shake a stick at it would be a waste of time. What I wrote is drawn from the analogous situation with German and English, on which subject any temerarious stick-shaking will be countered with a cudgel.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe think of Bacon’s Lat. “forum” as equivalent to the Gk “agora,” which is certainly seen in English but perhaps has not been domesticated as much as forum and thus has experienced less semantic drift? It I think captures the sense of a place where you go to buy stuff as well as to exchange political gossip or get sidetracked by the metaphysical speculations of sophists.

  25. Yes, I had thought that agora ought to be in the mix too. None of this is quickly straightened out. After all, Bacon was first a speaker of English; he thought in it (as it were), and wrote in his vernacular as he wrote in Latin. So with very many philosophers, of course. Less perhaps with British and American philosophers as we advance through history: they became more and more monolingual, with the unfortunate “linguistic turn” of more recent decades therefore paradoxically a sort of “anti-linguistic” turn also, twisting on a narrow base of Oxbridgean English – the way Freud’s hot-housed generalisations thrust forth luxuriantly in a Viennese temperature-controlled time and milieu. Quick clichéd thoughts, these. To keep things rolling.
    And another: Similar cross-language complexes must be dealt with in Descartes’s case – famously, and for the sake of easy illustration, with the cogito. The repeated essential pronoun in “Je pense donc je suis” conjures a hypostasised penseur; but “Cogito ergo sum” does not so desperately demand a cogitator. How did all that work for Descartes, in foro interno? Aldous Huxley writes:

    The truth, as von Baader pointed out, is not Cogito ergo sum but Cogitor ergo sum [I am thought (a passive, not a noun) therefore I am]. My existence does not depend on the fact that I am thinking; it depends on the fact that, whether I know it or not, I am being thought – being thought by a mind much greater than the consciousness which I ordinarily identify with myself. (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow)

    Such an extravagance is much easier to rein in than Descartes’s rather more famous jeu d’esprit. I would dismiss both – given world enough and time, coy prospective hatfolk bedfellows.
    And I would linger with Bacon in the charcuterie of categories, if I were not called away in the larger world: to action, alas, and not to the longueurs of philosophy.
    Tomorrow or tomorrow or tomorrow.

  26. Cogitor ergo sum
    For Pete’s sake – if anything, it would have to be cogitor ergo me esse cogitatur (or words to that effect). But that merely brings us back to square one, via the passive. I’d like to know how “the mind much greater” is gonna wriggle out of that one.

  27. … to action, alas, and not to the longueurs of philosophy
    Gravity is action at a distance, philosophy is inaction at a distance.
    Longueurs makes me think of ars longa, and two philosphers dickering over which of them has the biggest ars.

  28. … or the most philospherical ars, or the most phosphorescent.

  29. Noetica: Action, as distinct from labor and work? I congratulate you: are you running for office, sitting on a jury, or going off to overthrow the Tsar?

  30. Action in the most generic sense, as opposed to contemplation of abstractions. The Tsar is under no threat from me. Not just now, anyway.*
    *Gosh, that’s surprisingly hard to say in these troubled times! I am a man of peace, let the various monitoring agencies note.

  31. Noetica, I just encountered this in a book by Gadamer:

    … das Wort nous. Dies Wort bezeichnet ursprünglich das Wittern des wilden Tieres, wenn es nicht anderes spürt als “da ist etwas”

    That is to say: “this [Greek] word originally designates what occurs when a wild animal gets wind of something, when it registers nothing but ‘something’s there’ “.

  32. “It registers nothing but” is perhaps too vague, I feel belatedly. What es spürt nichts anderes als means here is “its entire attention is absorbed by”.

  33. … das Wort nous. Dies Wort bezeichnet ursprünglich…es nicht anderes spürt als “da ist etwas”
    Wort in which language, Stu? Greek or German? Not French. A very useful Wort for me, so I need to know how to pronounce it. Our dogs and goats all have that expression at least once a day.

  34. There’s nouse in English, of course.

  35. [Greek], as I added in my translation. nous = /noose/.

  36. The Greek word is used in the learned world in England (meaning something like “mind”), and also in the sports world as it turns out (meaning something like … well, look this blog‘s August 4 post. I’m not sure how those groups pronounce it. Is this the same as your nouse, AJP?
    Henceforth, mindful of the connection with wild animals sniffing the breeze, I will feel differently about the occasional lame pun on nous/nose.

  37. You guys are so literal-minded, sheesh ! Here I am, deploying etymology to subtly suggest that the mind gets wind of ideas like a wild animal scents prey, freezing and losing all perspective – and all I get in return is remarks about goats and noses. I guess I’d better go back to making corny puns. <sulks>

  38. Stu, when you make a subtle suggestion, you want someone to say “da ist etwas“, don’t you? Don’t worry, I pricked up my mental ears.
    Losing all perspective, though? Or adopting the appropriate new perspective for the moment–the moment when the presence of prey, or possibly predator, is detected.

  39. Losing all perspective, though? Or adopting the appropriate new perspective for the moment–the moment when the presence of prey, or possibly predator, is detected.
    Ok, not all perspective. But the predator perspective is extremely narrow and focussed – to catch an idea you need concentration. Once it’s been eaten, the perspective can be allowed gradually to expand during digestion.

  40. Stu, if anyone can can walk & chew gum at the same time I’m sure it’s you.
    Nouse in English (Britain? I don’t know) is knowledge or competence, “he’s got the nouse to mend a fuse”.
    Oh well, here’s the OED definition. They spell it nous.

    ‖ nous
    Also 8–9 nouse, 9 nowse.
    [a. Gr. νοῦς, Attic contracted form of νόος mind.]
    1.1 Greek Philos. Mind, intellect.
       1678 Cudworth Intell. Syst. i. iv. 406 An Immovable and Standing Nous or Intellect, which was properly the Demiurgus, or Architectonick Framer of the whole World.    1768–74 Tucker Lt. Nat. (1834) II. 197 They conceived of the Word as something analogous to the Nous or second Hypostasis of Plato.    1884 Encycl. Brit. XVII. 336/1 What Plotinus understands by the nous is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind‥, and, along with that, pure thought itself.
    2.2 colloq. or slang. Intelligence, common sense, gumption. (Common from 19th cent.)
       Sometimes written in Greek letters: ―
       [1729 Pope Dunc. iv. 244 Thine is the genuine head of many a house, And much Divinity without a Νους.    1797 R. Polwhele Old Engl. Gentl. 87 Turning to the signs with keener νους Foretold the future fortunes of his house.    1819 Byron Juan ii. cxxx, Because the good old man had so much νους.]
       1706 E. Baynard Cold Baths II. 306 A Demo-brain’d Doctor of more Note than Nous.    c 1790 Wolcot (P. Pindar) Lousiad ii. Wks. 1816 I. 158 Oh! aid, as lofty Homer says, my nouse, To sing sublime the Monarch and the Louse!    1819 Sir G. Jackson Diaries & Lett. (1873) I. 89 They would not send Oakeley. He has no nouse.    1847 F. A. Kemble Later Life III. 282, I think his doing so exhibits considerable nous in a brute.    1884 Graphic 8 Nov. 494/3, I am glad that my people had the nous to show you into a room where there was a fire.    1927 F. B. Young Portrait of Clare 509 ‘Upon my soul, Clare,’ Aunt Cathie declared, ‘I thought you had more nous.’    1928 Galsworthy Swan Song i. ii. 12 They’ve got no more nous than a tom-cat.    1930 R. Campbell Adamastor 26 Had Creswell, Smuts or Hertzog half his nous, There would be far more goats on the Karroo And far less in the Senate and the House.    1945 R. Hargreaves Enemy at Gate 291 Nothing compensated for ignorance or lack of nous in a leader.    1946 [see common n.1 16].    1956 [see backwoods b].    1959 [see can n.1 1 f].    1972 Daily Tel. 8 Dec. 14/6, I do know how easy it would be for anyone with a camera and a little nous to film ‘The Breakdown of Life’ in Britain.    1973 Times 22 Feb. 25/1 If we had had a bit of nous we’d have probably discovered this earlier.    1975 Daily Tel. 29 Jan. 17 The City, extraordinary as it may sound, has very limited political nous.
    attrib.    1823 Grose’s Dict. Vulgar T. (Egan), Nous Box, the head.
    Hence nous(e, v. (see quot.). rare.
       1859 Slang Dict. 69 Nouse, to understand or comprehend.

  41. 1973 Times 22 Feb. 25/1 If we had had a bit of nous we’d have probably discovered this earlier.
    All the nous that’s fit to print, subject to availability.

  42. Behind the paywall, though.
    The BrE pronunciation of course reflects the old Henninian pronunciation of Greek.

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